Book Review Number 22

Tyrant:  Shakespeare on Politics – Stephen Greenblatt

The author explores the social, psychological, and political aspects of tyranny as represented in Shakespeare’s artistic works. He dissects several of Shakespeare’s plays (Richard III, MacBeth, Lear, Coriolanus, and the societies they rule over) in an effort to illuminate the ways Shakespeare exposed the lust for absolute power and the catastrophic consequences of its execution.

In these plays Shakespeare presents economic misery, political classes in disarray, fragile institutions, and populist anger of the disenfranchised. He shows how people will put up with knowingly being lied to, partisan rancor, and fundamental indecency of those in power rather than risk taking action to stop a tyrant.

The book certainly represents Shakespeare’s work as I remember it. But reflecting on it within today’s context is especially interesting. The single most striking aspect of the book for me was Shakespeare’s depiction of Richard III. Those around him rushed to praise everything he did or said, supported his pathological rage and cruelty, and accommodated his narcissism. If I did not know who was being characterized I could easily believe the author was writing about Donald Trump.


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